Congress eyes $15M for Delta Authority

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 1, 2002

Bringing jobs to economically depressed areas of Alabama takes more than just convincing industries they can make a profit here. Rather, those industries want to see numbers — often in the form of dollar bills.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., strong-armed 20 Alabama counties into a new federal program called the Delta Regional Authority last year. Now, Shelby says he wants the federal government to contribute $15 million to the program.

Andrea Andrews, a spokeswoman for Shelby, said the Alabama senator secured the $15 million through a Senate appropriations committee. Now the U.S. House of Representatives must agree the $15 million is needed for the Delta Regional Authority.

Ask George Alford, director of Pioneer Electric’s business incubation center, and he’ll tell you the money is needed.

“So many times, we get these matching grants but we don’t have the matching money,” Alford said. “Getting money from [DRA] would help.”

DRA is a federal-state partnership that serves 240 counties and parishes in the southern part of the United States. Twenty counties in Alabama, including Dallas County, are part of the partnership. Money from DRA would help Alford and other economic developers lure more industries to the area.

“The Delta Authority’s main priorities are job training and economic development,” Andrews said. “Basically, it channels money into those areas that need the money most.”

Alford said bringing new industries into Alabama’s Black Belt — which makes up much of the 20-county DRA area — is difficult because of a lack of funding.

“This money would help us get up to a level playing field with other areas around the nation,” he said. “The money would be used for transportation and infrastructure.”

In Dallas County, for instance, Alabama Hwy. 41 leading from the Craig and South Dallas industrial parks needs to be expanded in order for large trucks to import and export products.

“We also don’t have good places to put industries right now,” Alford said. “We need areas that have water, sewer and electricity.”

Alford also pointed to having adequate flat land — without timber — as a key to luring industries.

“Right now, we don’t have many 20-acre flat sites, and that’s something industries look for,” he said.

DRA may provide just that. The partnership, as charged by President Bush, is to help economically distressed communities leverage federal and state programs that provide basic infrastructure development and transportation improvements.

The next hurdle for areas like Dallas County, which desperately need federal assistance, is actually getting the $15 million. Though Shelby included the money in the Senate’s appropriations bill, the House did not include the money.

“The next stage is getting the full Senate to pass the appropriations bill,” Andrews explained. “The House will pass its version.”

However, the two appropriations bills will not be the same and both the Senate and House bills will go to a conference committee. At that point, the two chambers will work out a compromise bill that says the same thing and the House and Senate must again vote on the bill. If both chambers agree to the bill, President Bush then signs the appropriations bill, which takes effect in fiscal year 2003.

Shelby has a knack in Washington for getting money through the budgeting process. Last year, he was able to push through $3 million for the study of expanding Interstate 85 from Montgomery to Meridian, Miss.

Just the fact that Alabama is included in the Delta Regional Authority took political muscle on Shelby’s part.

U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., helped begin DRA. Before DRA was approved by Congress, Shelby required that 20 Alabama counties be included in the funding partnership.

“Senator Shelby told Senator Lott that he would hold up a bill until Senator Lott put the Alabama counties into the Delta Regional Authority,” Andrews said.

Obviously, that happened.